Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
That carol played time and again in my head this Christmas season, one at a time of war and the deaths of so many young soldiers who should be planning frat parties and putting together degree plans rather than lying in state as the guests of honor at a military funerals. “Coventry Carol” covers an essential reality not even hinted at by most of the iconic symbols of the holiday, that birth and death, triumph and tragedy are conjoined twins, so linked in the human experience that the central symbol of Taoism, the yin-yang, embraces life’s jarring dualities.
The “Coventry Carol” served as a personal theme song this season. This Christmas, my three-year-old son Dominic leaped with joy when he discovered that Santa had, as promised, come down the chimney, ate the cookies and drank the milk thoughtfully left on a table the night before and left my little boy the bicycle with training wheels and the slide whistle pleaded for in an earlier letter to the North Pole
This Christmas I also spent watching my mother bleed to death.
This fall, Marie Louise Phillips began feeling weak and started losing her balance. Her doctors in Dallas initially diagnosed her as suffering from anemia, but eventually traced her problems to bleeding from a tumor caused by esophageal cancer. She had a particularly nasty, aggressive cancer that spread rapidly to her liver and her lymph nodes, but my mom initially accepted her fate. She told me that although she would like to see more of her grandson Dominic’s life, that she had lived a long time and was ready to go.
Unfortunately, her oncologist was participating in a clinical trial for new chemotherapy drugs and was eager to line up patients for a funded study. As doctors often do, I think he saw my mother as a set of symptoms to conquer rather than a frail individual needing wise counsel and compassionate care.
Certainly chemotherapy can work wonders. My father-in-law was struck by mesothelioma earlier this year, and after radiation and chemotherapy went into full remission. (More about that later.) Bold medical experimentation should be embraced. But the medical culture in this country, sadly, can’t cope with the fact that all patients ultimately die. Doctors haven’t cured death, though they act like it sometimes. And doctors too often spread this delusion to their patients. I can’t say that I was there when the oncologist briefed my mother on the experimental drug combination he was testing, but she was, like all people facing death, vulnerable to the frail lifeline the medications seemed to offer.
Those medicines proved to be torture. Aimed at killing the fast-growing cancer cells ravaging her body, they also destroyed the rapidly reproducing cells that create the mucous membranes lining her digestive tract. She started hemorrhaging, a condition made apparent by a non-stop nose bleed that began two days after I arrived at the hospital and grew worse with each passing hour. She would wake up, clutching the blood-soaked Kleenex she held to her nose even as she slept, and turned to me with a look of bewilderment before finally collapsing back into a fitful sleep punctuated by gasps and choking sounds.
Most of the nurses and aides at the hospital displayed empathy and emotional generosity. But I ended up arguing all one night with an oncology nurse, trying to convince her that my mother needed a transfusion of platelets to staunch the bleeding as soon as possible. The nurse insisted that my mom’s platelet count, 20 percent of a healthy person’s level, was twice the lab value required to begin treatment. My mother, a frail woman, weighed barely over 90 pounds and had been unable to eat for a week because of the damage to her throat caused by the chemotherapy. Yet the nurse insisted that mom wasn’t bleeding that badly, even though her hospital bed resembled a crime scene.
I got the platelet transfusion done for mom after carrying on this debate with the nurse for 10 hours. I also got them to increase the pain medication. I took a break at one point and wandered into the oncology ward’s family room. The television there broadcast CNBC. The anchors teased a story about whether the American economy is ready to cope should a pandemic strike the country next year. I was in a ward filled with people dying of cancer and the TV news was scaring people about bird flu or some other such exotica.
I gathered the family for the end. A perfectly hellish Christmas soon would crash to its inevitable conclusion. Even as my mom went into the Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas for the last time, my mother-in-law checked into an Arlington hospital suffering with sciatica. My father-in-law, who had been left with only one functioning lung after rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, went to yet another hospital after his damaged lung filled with fluid. He spent Christmas week with a feeding tube crammed in his throat, scribbling questions on a writing pad like, “Am I going to die?” His health remains precarious and although his condition slowly improves, another infection could send him racing back to the ICU. Such is the nature of modern medical miracles.
Amid all this chaos, my brother-in-law David, a very talented carpenter, drove a nail into one finger with a nail gun. Always stoic, he pulled the nail out and kept working. He arrived at the oncology ward, along with my sister Marie, my second oldest nephew Jeremy and Jeremy’s new wife Stephanie. I looked at David’s thumb wound. “Well, at least it’s not raining,” I lamely joked as a steady downpour filled the Dallas streets outside.
My mother’s personality always violently swung from moments of sweetness and generosity to explosive venom. Psychologists had diagnosed her as suffering from “borderline personality disorder.” Here’s how the Merck Manual of Medical Information defines the condition:
“People with a borderline personality, most of whom are women, are unstable in their self-image, moods, behavior, and interpersonal relationships (which are often stormy and intense) . . . When people with a borderline personality feel cared for, they appear lonely . . . often needing help for depression . . . However, when they fear abandonment by a caring person, their mood shifts dramatically. They frequently show inappropriate and intense anger accompanied by extreme changes in their view of the world, themselves, and others — shifting from black to white, hated to loved, or vice versa, but never to neutral.”
I tend to regard many psychiatric diagnoses as social constructs built upon biased assumptions about gender, class and race, but this description of borderline personality disorder sadly fit my mother to a “T.” One moment my mother would be full of praise for you and pleading for you to tell her how she could help. She could go from that mood within seconds into frothing rants that you were horrible, immoral and quite probably the worst person in the world. When my mom went into these rages there were no boundaries. Once, when she got mad at my wife and I over some pretext, she called to scream at us at 3 in the morning.
One story illustrates what life with my mother was like. When Samantha became pregnant, mom decided that she needed a crib at her house for Dominic and asked for my bother-in-law David’s help in putting it together. David was dealing with the death of an in-law and told my mom that he would get to it soon but that he couldn’t tend to it right away. Sam, after all, would not be delivering for another six months. That didn’t matter. My mother began shrilly screaming at David that he and my sister Marie never appreciated her, even after all she did for them. She told them Marie and David that she never wanted to see them again. She refused to have anything to do with my sister for the next three-and-a-half years and my mom and Marie would not be in the same room again until the last days of my mom’s life.
I don’t write this to condemn my mother, but to note the major struggle she faced with mental illness. She was the sixth daughter born to a poor family during the Depression, her father an alcoholic and her mother a weak woman who let mom essentially be raised by my Aunt Rita, a verbally abusive older sister. My mother didn’t choose to suffer from borderline personality disorder any more than I have chosen to be diabetic. But it did make coping with my mother’s death harder because neither my sister nor I were allowed the luxury of mourning for a parent with unambiguous feelings of grief. The deep sadness we felt at her death mixed with generous proportions of rage and confusion.
The mourning process became even harder as well-meaning people who hadn’t lived with my mom kept telling us what a sweet person she was. Yes, she could be sweet, but she was often insanely harsh and, particularly in the case of my sister, was nicer to strangers and more distant relatives than she was with her own immediate family.
That’s what made my sister’s reaction to my mother’s passing all the more heroic. When Samantha called Marie to tell her that I needed her help, she traveled to the hospital without a moment’s hesitation, not knowing if my mother would be conscious and, if she were, if she would launch into another tirade. My mother spoke to Marie just once at the hospital. Arousing briefly from the painkillers, she looked at Marie with a vague sense of recognition and said, “You cut your hair,” as if they had seen each other three days rather three years ago. My mom then slipped back to sleep.
I think my sister shares with me an uncertainty over the existence of God and if such an entity exists, the nature of such a being. Even so, she forgave my mom’s harsh words and emotional withdrawal, acting with the type of love and charity that is supposed to be central to Christianity. My sister provided my mother with tender care and loyal advocacy in her last hours, even though she was never given the cliché “closure” pop psychologists babble about. My sister had to embrace someone who had rejected her without the benefit of reconciliation. It stood as the most courageous act I ever witnessed.
My mother essentially was unconscious by the time I got her transferred to hospice care at a nursing home across the street from the hospital. Marie, David, Samantha, Jeremy, Stephanie and Dominic all saw her the final night. My mom quietly stopped breathing at 2 a.m.
I had not planned to, but I ended up scribbling a few words to speak on her behalf the morning of her funeral service December 29. Here, only very slightly modified to clarify what I felt, is my eulogy for Marie L. Phillips, April 9, 1932—December 20, 2006:
“The end was very hard for my mother. There was a great deal of pain and suffering. I say this not to be melodramatic, but to illustrate something about her character. One of her last verbal exchanges came when we were transferring her from the hospital to hospice care. The paramedics arrived and they have a standard set of questions they ask before they load a patient on the ambulance: ‘What is your name?’ ‘What day is it?’ and ‘Who is the president?’ When the paramedic got to this last question, my mom looked at him and snapped, ‘Bush, that idiot.’
That moment captures my mother perfectly. She was combative, often extremely difficult. But even at her most painful moment she had a biting sense of humor and remained aware of the larger world around her. Mom always taught me that life was about more than paying bills and running errands. The news was always on in her house, supplemented with her non-stop commentary. She had an opinion about everything. I remember that one of my proudest moments was when I got her to vote for the first time, when she was 40, when I persuaded her to cast her first ballot for George McGovern in 1972. She had raised me to believe that we all shared a moral obligation to oppose Richard Nixon and through her I could. From that moment on, she was a political junkie.
Her passion for knowledge is all the more remarkable because she grew up in New Orleans in the 1930s and 1940s and received the terrible public education available in Deep South at that time. She often strained against the limits of that education. My mom had a unique way with the language. When she won a battle for my father to receive some wages owed him by the Post Office, she told me that dad was going to get ‘radioactive pay.’ Once, when she got impatient as we sat behind a slow-moving Garland garbage truck she fumed, ‘The city thinks they own the street.’ In spite of this, my mom taught herself how to balance a budget, negotiate home repairs and manage a household. She provided for us when my dad was serving in Korea and Vietnam. Our house was filled with books and she always encouraged us to study.
I see these traits still alive in myself and in my sister. I think often of my family history: my grandmother had to drop out of the fifth grade to work and I have a Ph.D. My sister didn’t have the chance to go to college and get a four-year degree. She had to raise two children at a young age. But my sister has never finished learning. She’s one of three named litigants who successfully sued the city of Crawford, vacation home of our president, over their oppressive anti-protest ordinance. Ask her and she can tell you anything you need to know about ‘fair trade’ coffee, or about labor conditions at sweat shops around the world, or about the war in Iraq. Like my mother, my sister has never stopped learning. My mother gave that to us. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the ‘will to power.’ Largely because of my mother, out family has been defined by the ‘will to knowledge.’
This morning, we were talking to my son Dominic about death. He abruptly told us, ‘I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to go to Europe.’ I honestly don’t know where my mother is at this moment. I have strained against the limits of my education. I think that all honest people admit that they don’t know what happens after death. I do know that thought can’t be pinpointed to any particular set of neurons. I know that there is something more to the collective than to the individual consciousness. I also know that my mother left two children who are successes and three grandchildren who are well on their way to being successes. And I do know that she is somewhere where her pain and responsibilities are over. And I hope wherever she is, it is as nice as Europe.”
We spent much the afternoon and the night following the memorial service (not a “life celebration” as some language vandals would have it) at my mother’s house. Friends and family gathered to wish us well. My sister-in-law Sara did a tireless and graceful job setting out a meal and drinks for the guests (Alice wanted to help but couldn’t because of her still painful sciatica.) We spent a large part of the evening answering Dominic’s questions about death. Mom had been cremated, as per her request and the ashes were placed in a box, which was buried next to my father’s casket. Dominic was somewhat puzzled by the proceedings
“Why was Gammy in the box?”
My wife Samantha, gamely fielding the questions, said something like this:
“Our bodies eventually become ashes and Gammy wanted it to happen sooner.”
“Where is heaven?”
My wife said:
“A lot of people think it is behind the clouds, but it can be everywhere: the trees, rivers, the rain . . .”
“Why did Gammy get sick?”
“We don’t know. It just happened.”
“Did Gammy get sick because she fell?” [Feeling weak, my mom fell in a parking lot after Christmas shopping at a Target shortly before her final stint in the hospital. She got a black eye from the fall.]
“Why do we bury people?”
“Because our souls are not in our bodies and that is the custom. We like to have a place to say goodbye and remember the people who have gone to the angels, but her soul is all around us.”
Dominic’s questions continued for a while and I took leave. I stared at the TV set in the living room. All night, CNN broadcast a gruesome countdown to Saddam Hussein’s hanging, an event that finally took place after I got back to the bedroom and briefly slept with Sam and Dom. When I returned after a brief nap, a large crowd of Iraqi immigrants in Dearborn, Michigan, appeared on the screen and danced in the streets celebrating Saddam’s execution. I am numb, but not too numb to be repulsed by how ghoulish these celebrants and broadcast journalists are in contrast to my son’s innocent and loving inquiries about death.
We finally returned to our home in Bastrop. The night we return, December 30, vandals striking North Bastrop tore down our child’s chair swing in the front yard, our mail box, and some Christmas lights Samantha had carefully string along the top of our car port and planned to leave up until after New Year’s. We heard that now more than 3,000 American soldiers and Marines have died in Iraq. From the White House to the Kremlin, from Darfur to Baghdad, from Beijing, China, to Bastrop, Texas the terms of life on this planet have been dictated by the brutal, the greedy and the stupid.
My heart is heavy and edges towards despair as I greet the New Year. As I contemplate 2007, I can only humbly echo the beautiful words spoken by Bobby Kennedy during another dark night of the soul, on April 4, 1968, when the soon-to be-martyred Senator learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder: “Let us dedicate ourselves to . . . tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.